Family of Emmett Till reacts to DOJ closing investigation into his murder

The Justice Department told them it would not pursue federal prosecution.

December 7, 2021, 10:46 AM

The Department of Justice announced Monday that it was closing its cold case investigation into the murder of Emmett Till.

"Today is a day that we’ll never forget," Rev. Wheeler Parker, Till’s cousin, said at a press conference following the announcement.

"Officially, the Emmett Till case has been closed after 66 years," Parker said. "For 66 years we have suffered pain for his loss, and I suffered tremendously because of the way that they painted him."

Ollie Gordon, Till's cousin, said in an interview with ABC News Live that her cousin's fate may have ended differently if he had been killed in the present day.

"I think [there] might have been a different outcome, a different verdict, because the world has moved forward," she said.

Till, 14, was killed in 1955 while visiting family in Mississippi after he was accused of whistling at and making sexual advances toward a white woman named Carolyn Bryant -- who has since married and is now known as Carolyn Bryant Donham. He was kidnapped, badly beaten and found in the Tallahatchie River several days later.

An investigation into the 1955 killing was reopened in 2018, following the publication of Timothy Tyson's book "The Blood of Emmett Till," which alleged that Bryant had recanted her testimony that Till had grabbed her and uttered obscenities.

However, during the investigation, Bryant denied that she recanted her testimony in an interview with the FBI. The FBI concluded that there was insufficient evidence to prove that she lied to the FBI by denying that she recanted her testimony.

PHOTO: The Justice Department sent a letter to Emmett Till''s family after meeting with them privately to outline the results of their investigation into the 14-year-old''s murder in 1955.
The Justice Department sent a letter to Emmett Till''s family after meeting with them privately to outline the results of their investigation into the 14-year-old''s murder in 1955.
Fatima Curry for ABC News

In a letter to Till's family, the Justice Department called Till's murder "one of the most horrific examples of the violence routinely inflicted upon Black residents." It also said that the FBI identified "significant obstacles" to proving that Bryant's testimony was false, including that Bryant's recantation mentioned in the book was not in recordings or transcripts provided to the FBI.

Officials from the Department of Justice and the FBI, including Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Kristen Clarke, met privately with Till’s family to share their findings.

"I'm not surprised, but my heart is broken," Thelma Wright Edwards, Till's cousin, said.

"I pinned diapers on Emmett. I lived with him, he was like a brother to me," she added. "I have no hate in my heart, but I had hoped we could get an apology. But that didn’t happen, nothing was settled. The case is closed, and we have to go on from here."

And the weight of Till's loss still hangs heavy on the family.

"Pain is somewhat numbed, but it never really goes away," Parker told "ABC News Live" Tuesday.

Bryant's then-husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother J.W. Milam were charged with Till's murder and acquitted by an all-white jury. The two men later confessed to the killing in a paid magazine interview months later.

When asked about the closure of the investigation, a woman who identified herself as a member of Bryant's family said "she’s glad it’s done," when reached by ABC News.

PHOTO: Emmett Till is shown lying on his bed in this undated photo.
Emmett Till is shown lying on his bed in this undated photo.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images, FILE

Till's cousin Parker -- who was 16 at the time -- was in the house when Roy Bryant and Milam came looking for Till.

"I'm waiting to be shot, and I close my eyes," Parker recalled in an interview with ABC News for an upcoming documentary series "Let the World See." "I wasn't shot, I opened my eyes and they're passing by me. The guy said we're looking for fat boy, the fat boy from Chicago."

"They left with him, and that's the last time we saw him alive," he added.

Till's murder came at a time of intense racial unrest and animosity. When his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, demanded an open casket at his funeral, it helped spark the civil rights movement.

The Justice Department opened an investigation into Till's killing in 2004 but determined that there was no federal jurisdiction due to the statute of limitations. The investigation was originally closed in 2007 after a local grand jury declined to indict anyone on state charges.

It was reopened in 2018, following the publication of Tyson's book. In a statement to ABC News, Tyson pushed back against the DOJ's report.

"As I write in the book on page 6, Carolyn Bryant Donham’s 'confession' to me was corroborated by her own account, given to her attorney only days after Emmett Till’s body was found -- her attorney, who could not testify against her, in private, and right after," he said. "She told her attorney her story, but did not mention any physical contact, which she described in court as more or less a rape attempt; when she told me 'that part’s not true' I was well aware of that. There is a lot of evidence."

ABC News' Fatima Curry and Luke Barr contributed to this report.